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The Downside of Overwhelming Cultural Power
On the need to understand when you’ve convinced people, and when you haven’t
As they push for wilder and wilder changes, activists are beginning to experience the downside of wielding hegemonic cultural power - that you often mistake compliance for agreement; and you forget that for your achievements to last you have convince people rather than simply speaking over them. When your views collide with uncaring reality the effect can be bracing.
The Heard/Depp case was a great litmus test of that power. It was more or less #metoo and “Believe All Women” on trial, both publically and in the courtroom: it failed in both venues. What happens when the person you are asked to believe is on a recording admitting to being abusive and delighting in the prospect of getting away with it?
Regardless of the truth of the case, or whether “Believe All Women” was a necessary corrective, most people have always viewed it as a debatable stance. The outcome reflects that.
Yet you would never have known it’s debatable nature from reading newspapers, blue-checks on twitter, the outpourings of celebrities, academics or politicians over the past five or so years. From the point of view of respectable opinion, there weren’t two legitimate ideas – believing victims and reasonable scepticism of unproven claims - in tension. There was an official right and side of history, and you needed to get on it, fast.
The apocalyptic hand-wringing we have seen following the verdict reflects this dissonance. It’s a pattern we will see more often over the coming years, as increasingly daring activist pushes and legal changes come into brutal collision with the brick wall unchanged of public opinion.
In a way the advocates of social liberalisation are victims of their own success. Over the past 75 years, they have secured victories in the teeth of public opinion that they were able to pass into law; and public opinion changed in a way that followed the law.
The legalisation of gay marriage is the archetypal example of this. The push to legalise it bore fruit comparatively quickly. Wherever it’s introduced in law, the legal change seems to only make the concept more popular and less controversial, almost as though there was an unconscious high level of support out there, ready to be activated at any moment.
This pattern of progress is the activist’s ideal, and they have sought to apply it to other issues. But not all issues are like that.
The most obvious current example of this is the debate on Trans rights. It’s become an accepted opinion amongst educated, upwardly mobile people that Womanhood is an inner truth rather than a biological category. This view and the implications of it is disseminated widely and reinforced through laws designed to make it hard to express dissent.
But some portion of the public will not be cowed by penalties imposed on them. Others will keep their dissent to themselves but row in behind powerful people who have the courage to dissent publicly.
This is why all the action around JK Rowling is so indicative. She gives a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the current settlement courage and cover to speak up. The fact that activists felt they could go to war with such a powerful and beloved cultural figure is in itself an indication of how they understand the popularity and hard power of their cause. It hasn’t gone as they might have expected.
We talk a lot about politically deluded behaviour and how it stems from the social bubbles we’re all trapped in. This analysis sees socially liberal and socially conservative bubbles as equal, which they are in some sense. But when your bubble comprises all of the institutions which generate respectable opinion, that’s an important difference.
The power and prestige of that bubble can trick you into thinking a greater range or variety of people agree with them than do, or that your values are more established than they are. It can persuade you that you don’t need to do anything further to convince anyone, because your views are accepted as the correct ones by anyone that matters. That’s the trap.
Alongside this, successes in campaigns of cultural liberalisation in the past have tricked the upwardly mobile people into thinking there is a natural process whereby if they translate their opinions into law, and continually reinforce those opinions via prestige institutions, that people will come to agree with them over time. But no such process exists.
None of this is to pass judgement on the validity of any of the causes mentioned above. But the point is – disseminating your views widely and punishing people for not holding them is not the same as convincing someone those views are actually true. That is the longer term purpose of cultural power – to create space to change people’s minds about what’s right and wrong. That work still needs to be done.
On #metoo, and Trans rights, and any number of other issues the failure to change underlying public opinion means what activists are building may not be an invincible fortress, but a sandcastle; and you’ll only find out one way or another when the tide comes in.